Republican opposition can continue to suppress US climate legislation even if the Democrats take the White House and both houses of Congress in 2020. Conservatives have been slow to address environmental challenges, even though many clean energy and other sustainability measures fit well within a belief in free market solutions. Yet, as the reality of climate change becomes more evident and pressing, a number of reasons are starting to convince some conservatives to rethink their positions and to begin to fight climate change.
Climate change activists generally assume that conservatives have little interest in participating in climate action policy changes. It’s true that discourse from the Trump administration, the Koch brothers, and fossil fuel companies focuses on minimizing the problem or by taking a fatalistic approach and insisting that nothing can be done. However, researchers have determined that failure to meet climate mitigation goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement could cost the planet trillions over the next century, and money is a motivating force for conservatives.
In 2018, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, an increase in Republican understanding of the reality of human-caused global warming, worry about the threat, and support for several climate policies over the past 6 months has become evident. And it’s awakening conservative policy makers, albeit slowly.
Here are a series of reasons why conservatives are starting to take notice of climate change.
Reason #1: To Fight Climate Change is to Negate a Serious Threat to Global Security
When a coalition of 25 military and national security experts, including former advisers to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, warned in 2016 that climate change poses a “significant risk to US national security and international security,” conservatives started to listen. The panel of retired military officers and others published a report detailing the threat of sea level rise and the potential to inhibit the US military’s mission. The concerns expressed by these leaders acknowledged a growing consensus:
- The threat of climate change is real.
- Climate change poses a significant threat.
- Now is the time to act regardless of the uncertainty in modeling the impacts of climate change.
Their recommendations included the creation of a cabinet-level official dedicated to climate change and security issues and the prioritization of climate change in intelligence assessments.
Todd Davidson, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute, also pushes for conservatives to think of climate change as a threat to global security. “We spent $590 billion on defense in 2017 and maintained readiness against the unlikely prospect of a large conventional war, but we continue to falter when addressing climate change.” He calls upon conservatives to recognize what he says is a constitutional mandate to provide for the common defense by addressing the rising threat of climate change.
He reminds conservatives, that, for more than a decade, national intelligence and defense agencies have spoken out about potential climate change impacts and that the US intelligence community published its Worldwide Threat Assessment in February, 2018. In it, Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, acknowledged the potential for climate change to cause humanitarian disasters and conflict.
Reason #2: Many Republican-Held Districts are Already Experiencing the Effects of Climate Change
It’s become increasingly clear that cities that border the sea are far more likely to be flooded by rain, rising sea levels, or storm surges than their mid-continent neighbors. In 2016, Freddie Mac warned of a collapse in coastal property values, and, in 2018, collapse began to appear as realized losses in 8 Atlantic states. Okay, last autumn the Trump administration did disassemble rules promulgated by the Obama administration requiring new federal building and infrastructure projects to make provision for the effects of more frequent flooding and rising sea levels. Nonetheless, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse argues that there’s an “increasing sense of urgency and risk among people like coastal realtors who weren’t really interested in this before.”
And it’s happening in areas that have been traditional Republican strongholds. Partially that’s because there’s a climate change generational, ethnic, and gender gap. 61% of Republicans under the age of 50 support government climate policies, compared to just 44% of Republicans over 50. And nowhere is that gap more evident than in coastal areas that have experienced the ravages of extreme storms and rising sea levels.
Carlos Curbelo, a Republican congressional representative from southern Florida whose district is vulnerable to climate change, proposed a bill in July, 2018 that would tax carbon pollution. Although Republicans have voted for a resolution calling a carbon tax “detrimental to American families and businesses,” 6 Republicans did break ranks and vote against the proposal.
“When your community is getting battered by hundred-year-storms and floods on a regular basis and the seas are rising before your eyes, it gets harder and harder to ignore the reality that the climate is rapidly changing and something must be done to cut carbon pollution,” Grace McRae, polling and research director at the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “Republicans, just like everyone else living in this country, are dealing with the painful and costly consequences of the climate crisis and are increasingly concerned and supportive of action.”
And the Florida coastline is not alone. Many communities around the US have experienced tidal surges, broken seawalls, eroding coastlines, and loss of real estate value as a direct result of climate change. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists says climate change-driven sea level rise could make nearly 311,000 existing residential and commercial properties in the US uninhabitable by 2045. Those properties are all in the contiguous 48 states and collectively worth $136 billion.
If carbon emissions and rapid ice sheet loss are not curtailed, chronic flooding will render these homes and businesses unusable by 2045, the study says. Differences between the present day and just 0.5 degrees more warming are substantial increases leading to hot temperatures, heavy precipitation events, and extreme droughts.
Reason #3: Respected Republican Elders are Promoting Carbon Dividends
Republican party elders James A. Baker III and George P. Schultz formed a new organization in 2017 to build political support for the carbon dividend proposal, and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) have joined in with their support. Calling themselves the Climate Leadership Council, the group has outlined a 4-point plan:
- A gradually rising tax on carbon dioxide emissions, to be implemented at the refinery or the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy
- All proceeds from this carbon tax would be returned to the American people on an equal and monthly basis
- Border adjustments for the carbon content of both imports and exports would protect American competitiveness and punish free-riding by other nations, encouraging them to adopt carbon pricing of their own
- Elimination of regulations that are no longer necessary upon the enactment of a rising carbon tax
The Americans for Carbon Dividends, co-chaired by Lott, is meeting with members of Congress to line up co-sponsors for a bill. They’ll be targeting potentially sympathetic GOP senators like the 13 — ranging from moderates such as Susan Collins (Maine) to solid conservatives such as Tim Scott (S.C.) — who sent a letter to Trump in June urging him to approve a climate-related amendment to the Montreal Protocol.
The Climate Leadership Council has assembled a coalition of leading corporations in support of the Baker-Schultz carbon dividend, including BP, Exelon, Exxon-Mobil, Johnson & Johnson, GM, Shell, Total, Unilever, Pepsi, and MetLife. The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures has pressed thousands of corporations worldwide to disclose and mitigate climate risk, and hundreds of them have joined the effort.
Reason #4: It’s All about Politics, Stupid
When conservatives set the terms of climate change debate in the public mind, they tend to spread the party’s views through tested and refined sound bites in media appearances, editorials, social media, and other forums. People first align themselves with groups, often political parties, that appeal to them on the basis of their own experiences, demographics, and social networks. They then entrust the recognized leaders of their self-selected cultural group to sort out the details of dense policy and science for them, while vigorously rejecting arguments that seem to oppose their ideologies—in part because such arguments also effectively attack their identity.
In fact, political predisposition is by far the most influential factor in determining a person’s “perceptions and attitudes about climate change,” noted Megan Mullin and Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics at New York University, in a 2017 analysis in the Annual Review of Political Science. Politics that reveals new ways to think about climate change can sway conservative minds. In fact, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication issued a report earlier this year that a change in views about climate science and action is now evident among Republicans — even those who were the most hard-line opponents.
Joseph Majkut, director of Climate Policy at the libertarian think tank, Niskanen Center, told US News that, with an issue associated with political identification like global warming, “most people don’t have strong empirical belief.” Instead, he says, because climate change is difficult to understand, people turn to their “tribal affiliates and allies” for guidance. “So if Fox News is blasting a lot less climate skepticism over the last six months or year – because there’s no real threat of political action on climate change, maybe views have shifted – they repair toward the average or repair toward the empirical.”
The Niskanen Center educates policy actors about climate science and directly confronts climate skeptics, especially encouraging Republicans to use regulatory authority to address greenhouse gas emissions efficiently and to initiate legal action to compel responses to climate risks. The Center defends property rights from fossil-fuel infrastructure and eminent-domain claims and promotes carbon taxation to maximize individuals’ and companies’ ability to use trial and error to efficiently reduce carbon emissions. Their work is part of a growing body of conservative advocates who are speaking up about the need to address climate change.
Reason #5: Clean Energy Creates Jobs
Energy efficiency creates more jobs than fossil fuels — and at a faster rate, at a lower cost, and with good wages. That’s a big incentive for pro-business Republicans. The Institute for Policy Studies lists several different ways that the clean energy industry is creating jobs:
- Developing and installing the technology to reduce fossil fuel use — known in the industry as “energy efficiency” — creates many more jobs than fossil fuels.
- Energy efficiency jobs in the United States totaled 2.18 million in 2016, more than double the total of fossil fuel production and fossil-fuel based electricity generation combined.
- Energy efficiency jobs are much cheaper to create — every $1 million invested in energy efficiency creates 12 jobs, compared to just 4 or 5 for fossil fuel jobs.
Renewable energy is now a larger industry than the coal industry, with more employees and more revenue. Many renewable energy businesses are becoming powerful players in red states, like wind energy in Texas.
And those businesses are offering results to Texas communities. Take an NPR “All Things Considered” story about Georgetown, Texas, an exurb of Austin — one of the first cities in the country to be 100% powered by renewable energy. Mayor Dale Ross says, “I don’t think they’re ever going to accuse Georgetown of being the next Berkeley.” Yet he quickly adds that the move to renewable energy was “a business decision.” Wind and solar power, he acknowledged, are predictable, prices don’t swing up and down like oil and gas, and a city like Georgetown can sign a contract for the next 25 years. “That’s especially appealing in a place like Georgetown where a lot of retirees live on fixed incomes,” the Mayor conceded.
Reason #6: The Millennials Want Clean Energy, & Conservatives Want the Millennial Vote
The ranks of Millennial and Generation X eligible voters have been growing, thanks to the aging-in of Millennials and naturalizations among foreign-born adults. According to the Pew Research Center, historical patterns of voter turnout by generation also suggest the likely end of dominance by Boomers and prior generations.
Taking care of the planet doesn’t seem like a partisan idea to millennials — it’s more like common sense. To find that the values that had been ingrained in them from a young age are not universally shared by conservative political agendas seems, well, contradictory. Groups like the American Conservation Coalition, a “a millennial-led, free-market environmental organization,” conducted a study of 400 18-24 year-old likely voters across the nation from February 10-14, 2018. The results are eye-opening to conservatives.
- are less likely to vote for a candidate who opposes clean energy by two-to-one
- view clean energy as an important, and growing, part of America’s energy future
- favor a system that allows consumers to choose where their electricity comes from and what kind of energy they use
- believe that the US can create a new electricity system that benefits the environment, accelerates new technology, and opens up electrical markets to competition
Conservative organizations are reaching out quickly to millennials as the 2018 midterm elections loom. “In 2018, millions of young Americans will be casting ballots in their first election – and how they vote will be a strong predictor of voting habits that will persist for the rest of their lives,” says Mark Pischea, president of the Conservative Energy Network. “It’s important that young people understand that they can be conservative and favor clean energy – and support candidates who feel the same.”
Studies show that millennials — who were born after 1982 and who were raised amidst the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” — want clean energy, are vocal about climate change, and want smart home technologies more than older generations. That’s the lowdown from a 2018 Arcadia Power study. Over 80% of millennials said cost savings would motivate them to switch their home to clean energy, while only 62% said environmental savings would be enough. Thus, cost savings on residential energy bills is an important factor as millennials move from dependence on fossil fuels to clean energy for their personal energy usage.
The Baker-Schultz Carbon Dividend is as high among young Republicans as it is among young Democrats.
Yes, fossil fuel interests pour money into congressional (Note: you can research individual congressional reps’ campaign assets and donations here) campaigns. Trump is still rhetorically committed to the coal and oil industries, and he likes to surround himself with coal miners at rallies and photo ops. But the weakening of denialists could pay off once Trump departs the office.
But the slow march toward combating climate change has begun by a conservative coalition that is building around a concrete end game. Although their discourse tends to avoid mentioning the phrases “climate change” or “global warming,” more conservatives are coming to the realization that climate change is not a hypothetical future event. The accelerating consequences of climate disruption will be a major influence on the lives of Republican constituents, and a reframing of existing policies that protect the environment could bring rare consensus across the political aisle by people who are committed to halting climate change, though they may support different policy options.